Something About Gongfu

Something about Gongfu

Do you have gongfu? A Chinese friend casually asked me one day.

It was a question I'd never expected to hear outside of a Hong Kong movie. I almost expected Jackie Chan, or a band of warrior monks to suddenly leap from behind a shadow-shrouded bamboo screen. As it turned out, I did have gongfu after all, despite my lack of martial arts training. The question is a way to see if a friend has free time, specifically to drink tea. He was inviting me to share some gongfu tea with him, the traditional tea eremony from Guangdong and Fujian provinces.

Guests can both learn from and enjoy the gongfu tea service. We were in the Qingxin Court Teahouse, one of the rare but the growing number of traditional-style teahouses in Beijing. In a country where most people have little spare money or energy for leisure, the revived gongfu teahouse is a consciously anachronistic construct. The goal is to let time slip away, a luxury that tends to be ignored in China's capital these days, particularly on bustling Jianguomenwai Road, a few feet from this teahouse's door. Inside, modern and classical aesthetics merge to create a dreamy environment where time seems to slow to a crawl, and entire hours are mysteriously lost. The soft sound of trickling water from the small pond in the center blends with the delicately plucked guzheng (Chinese dulcimer) to foster tea culture's central activities: conversation and go (a board game, better known in the West as "go".

The table, however, seems anything but tranquil. Each person's setting has what seems like one cup too many, and a jumble of tongs, scoops, filters, and pitchers crowds the table's center. The tea ceremony has collected an assortment of comparatively modern conveniences since the Chinese first began steeping tea instead of boiling it, more than a thousand years ago. Though less formal than the Japanese version, the Chinese chadao (way of tea) has enough hoopla to merit its reputation as an excuse to waste time.

A hundred years ago, tea was poured over a circle of thimble-sized cups, with a porcelain drain to catch what didn't make it in. Today, the cups and drains are a little larger and a little fancier, but the core of the procedure is the same. And gongfu tea, of course, is reserved for the most powerful of all Chinese teas: oolong, whose name literally means "black dragon".

The Ceremony

The teahouse features a modern twist. You will be asked to smell the dry leaves while the cups and pots are dipped in boiling water with tongs. Once the tea set is sanitary, the leaves will "enter the palace"- the clay teapot - and be steeped. The first brew is poured out; this is called "washing the tea", and is necessary to weaken the oolong leaves before drinking them. The waitress will pour the boiling water a second time, lifting the kettle up and down as the pot fills, referred to as "the phoenix nods three times," then moved in circles, and eventually poured until it overflows. Steeping time is immediate, and the tea may be filtered into a pitcher before it is poured, to spare you from having to eat your tea leaves while you drink.

Before getting your first taste, however, you'll have to get your cups straight. The tall, cylindrical one is the "smelling cup" (xiang bei, literally fragrant cup). Once you've taken a deep breath of the contents, a rather daunting challenge awaits you - somehow transferring the very hot liquid from this very full cup to the smaller, empty, "tasting cup" (pin bei). The most graceful way to do this requires a little acrobatics and self-confidence, but looks marvelous if you can conquer your initial fear.

Place the tasting cup on top of the smelling cup so they look like a mushroom. Then, with the "stem" between your middle and index fingers and your thumb on the very top, quickly turn the cups upside-down. It's a tense moment, but once you've got the tasting cup on the bottom, you can slowly lift the smelling cup in circles, until only a faint

fragrance is left inside it. As might be expected, tradition separates the tea drinking itself by gender. Women hold their cup with three fingers, curving the index finger out like ladies did their pinkies at Victorian tea parties. Men are expected to have the strength to lift the cup with only two fingers: their index finger rests on the cup's side and the middle one supports its bottom.

The uniquely decorated Qingxinju Teahouse is reminiscent of China's ancient tea culture. After 15 minutes of watching liquid pour from one receptacle to another, you may be tempted to gulp your three ounces down all at once. This is perfectly acceptable, but if you don't want to ruin your refined image after managing that tricky cup turnover, it would be better to drink it in three delicate sips. The first sip prepares your taste buds, the second lets you focus on the flavor itself, and the third leaves you with a pleasant aftertaste. Although one batch of oolong leaves may be poured up to six times without losing its flavor, the third cupful is considered the best, and is the most savored.

Savor the moment, too. Eventually, the modern world will call you back from all this ancient rigmarole, and you'll have to step back out into the chaotic, fast pace of, if not the most developed, then certainly the most developing countries in the world. As exciting as these modern times may be, sometimes it's nice to have a good excuse to slip into a specifically unexciting nook with a few friends and while some precious hours away.

That is, if you've got gongfu.

from China Today

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